Monday, March 24, 2014

The Cormorant by Stephen Gregory (1986): Everybody Knows That the Bird is the Word

A novel not much talked about in horror fiction circles but which deserves to be, and  which fortunately is in print and readily available today, The Cormorant (paperback St. Martin's Press, Dec 1988) is a work of relentless obsession, with an ever-spiraling narrative that deepens dangerously right before the reader's eyes. British-born author Stephen Gregory, in his first novel, has produced a work that is beautifully written, daring in execution, and horrific in a literate, intimate way. There's a sense of unavoidable disaster looming over everything that happens - something I always find quite appealing in my horror fiction. I had the book read in two days, beginning it practically the moment I tore it out of its mailing package!
The unlikeliness of the drama only adds to its verisimilitude, and Gregory's abilities as a writer give The Cormorant an earthy believability. That title is no metaphor or poetic allusion: the story concerns a man who inherits from his dead uncle an actual cormorant, a coastal bird of prey that is not quite goose, not quite crow, not quite gull. There is chaos and disbelief at first when the bird explodes out of its crate in the dramatic opening pages, honking and rasping, awkwardly spreading its oily wings, reeking of dead sea life and squirting shit all over the family living room. Like other animals that invade our domestic tranquility, this avian has an identity all its own, and isn't afraid of asserting it with ominous authority - no surprise when early on the narrator states the cormorant was a Heathcliff, a Rasputin, a Dracula...

1996 White Wolf reprint, great cover by John Van Fleet

The condition that this city family inherit their late Uncle Ian's Welsh cottage rests upon their caring for his cormorant. While narrator's wife Ann shudders at the cormorant's demonic arrogance, their baby Harry giggles, gurgles bright-eyed, and reaches out for the bizarre bird. And after awhile, the narrator and the bird form a reluctant companionship, even possibly an admiring one, as the bird made an art out of being vile, [and] it was somehow endearing, such candour. He builds an enclosure for his inheritance - named, in a moment of flashing insight, Archie - at the bottom of the garden, and it seems to find him an acceptable part of its environment... Archie was thriving, growing into a sleek and haughty creature.

1980s UK paperback

The narrator must be haunted by an image we see only pages in, even as he and Archie learn to fish together -  a mutually beneficial partnership seen since time immemorial - and the family begins to mold their lives around such an unruly, malodorous beast. Early on the reader learns how Uncle Ian died, ostensibly from a heart attack on his boat, and it was not pretty, not with Archie nearby, cleaning a few soft morsels of flesh from its beak. Slowly author Gregory builds his atmosphere of dank unease, chilly foreshadowing, and grey, shadowy dreams in which the narrator gets only a glimpse of Uncle at family funerals. One night the couple finds little Harry standing in his crib, concentrating on their back yard, oblivious to his astonished parents standing behind him:

Archie too was awake. The cormorant stood in the full silver beams of the moon, head and beak erect, wings outstretched. Utterly motionless. Utterly black. Not a tip of a feather trembled. It was an iron statue, a scarecrow. It was a torn and broken umbrella, a charred skeleton.

St Martin's Press hardcover, 1988

There are many vivid and unsettling scenes of the family (and neighbor)  strife that Archie causes, partly because of his outrageous behavior, partly because Ann resents the narrator's growing eccentricities, partly because baby Harry seems somehow obsessed with the bird. The reader might have the feeling at times that perhaps old Uncle Ian somehow resides within the cantankerous Archie, gaining pleasure from his épater le bourgeois attitude, loutish manners, arrogant squirts of shit out his tailfeathers. Over and over a whiff of Uncle's ugly cigar smoke, a gray man's shadow hanging about, and Harry becoming mesmerized in a creepy way by Archie as he preens in the back yard, by the lights of the Christmas tree, by the flames of the fireplace...

I thought these hints might lead to a moment of revelatory horror; the bird might be a sort of revenant of working-class Uncle Ian, terrorizing this middle-class family for pleasures he never had; or the uncle could even be a spirit that comes to inhabit little Harry. But this ambiguity never clears (which is why I suppose the novel won a literary award, the *clears throat* Somerset Maugham, for best book by a writer under 35). No matter, really; perhaps the horror is heightened this way.

Gregory is a skilled writer (and author of at least two other novels I'd love to read, The Woodwitch and The Blood of Angels), and his depiction of the cormorant's physical nature and appetite is done with a poet's pen and a zoologist's eye. Building his story carefully and grounding it with effective passages about the landscape, the weather, the sea, its tang and its scent and its eternal return, he never lets us forget that  nature is ever-present, bearing down its indifferent powers upon all earth's creatures. An occasional moment of  uncomfortable sexual suggestion will rise to the surface as well, usually between man and wife, but other places too, the connection between man and beast, owner and the owned. The family bath scene alone...!

No, this author isn't afraid of his terrors, which are quietly obsessive, compelling, bewitching, moody, all weaving a spell over the reader without "resorting" to any kind of bloodshed or graphic violence. Chills are applied masterfully; we are drawn along as the narrator is consumed by his fascination with the bird. The Cormorant is wholly an original novel, building to a fiery climax of overwhelming, heart-rending horror. It's so, so pleasurable to let an author take the reins and lead you down a dark and sinister path, a writer fully in control of the experience, taking you to a point you could feel coming the moment you began reading. I guarantee it: readers won't soon forget Archie the beastly cormorant.


Ron Clinton said...

This is a book I've been meaning to read for years, but for whatever reason have never gone the extra step to order it. I did stumble upon another book of his, The Perils and Dangers of This Night, at a local used bookstore a month or so ago, and it thus far remains in my To Be Read pile. Your enthusiastic review of this book, though, spurs me to move it to the top. If I like it and enjoy his style, I'll be sure to grab The Cormorant as well.

As always, a nice job on the review.

J F Norris said...

So glad Valancourt has reprinted this minor masterpiece of modern horror. When I saw they had it planned for a reissue a few years ago I was very excited.

Just in case anyone is interested: In 1993 this book was made into a movie for an anthology TV series in the UK. It starred Ralph Fiennes before he became an international movie star. "The Cormorant" was only his third or fourth TV program after a varied careeer as a stage actor.

Will Errickson said...

Oh yes, I meant to mention the movie! Thanks. It's on YouTube:

Adam said...

Yeah, I have a copy of the St. Martin's on my shelf and have had it for years and years. It's one of those books that every time I'm in the mood to read something like it, I forget about it and end up reading something else.

Time to move it to a visible area of the bookcase.

Adam said...

Ah, jeez, and how could I have forgotten to ask if you'd read Dance of the Dwarfs by Geoffrey Household...? These two books would probably sit side by side quite well.

Will Errickson said...

Ooh, Adam, I own a copy of that one! Nice.

Adam said...

Just warning you: Dance of the Dwarfs is one of my hands-down, all time favorite books. I have a hard time even thinking of a another book I could compare it to, and even then, none of the one's that come to mind have half the impact.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

A brilliant book.

I've been singing the praises of this on my own blog for years.

His THE WOODWITCH is also very good.

The CORMORANT TV movies with R. Fiennes isn't too bad, either.

Jason said...

It also finally made it onto Kindle yesterday (at least in the UK).

3Fs said...

I’m gonna come off like a philistine, but the appeal of this one eluded me.

The prose was good, and I admire the writing feat of having a first-person narrator lose his shit, but I just couldn’t get over how uneventful the story was. Maybe I read too much into the cover of the St. Martin’s edition, which seems to promise gory action within, but it’s still shocking how little happens in this book (e.g., of the six sections, sections two and four both end with essentially the same dun-dun-dun! revelation. As in, even through two sections the needle hadn’t moved vis-à-vis upping the stakes of the horror).